Grace & Danger: A Celebration of John Martyn review – torrid tribute from Paul Weller and friends
A hard-drinking, kaleidoscopically voiced jazz-folk voyager who flattened both genre boundaries and those who got on his bad side, John Martyn died in 2009, aged just 60. To mark the 10th anniversary of his death, his musical and occasional boxing partner Danny Thompson has recruited eight guest artists for a Celtic Connections tribute show in the city Martyn called home.
Thompson, looking resplendent in a kilt, remains spry at 79 and is still capable of wringing pure poetry out of a double-bass, as evidenced by his dreamy version of Solid Air, where he matches the roaming rumble of dapper US bluesman Eric Bibb with an equally exploratory bassline. The lush, spacey sound of mid-period Martyn is later recreated with the help of keyboardist Foster Paterson and bassist Alan Thomson –both also veterans of his touring band– alongside drummer Arran Ahmun and a swooning 15-piece string section. The results are suitably cosmic and, like the man himself, unpredictable.
The animated Ross Wilson AKA Blue Rose Code whips up a gorgeous version of Fine Lines that inspires an audience singalong, while English guitarist Rory Butler dives into the cartwheeling instrumental A Day At The Sea with such rigour he springs off his stool. Lucy Rose's heart-breaking solo Couldn't Love You More is an early standout, while Eddi Reader brings both serenity and grit to Fairy Tale Lullaby, a deep pull from Martyn's debut album and a song he apparently wrote when he was just 16.
If the mood is freewheeling, Paul Weller initially seems all business, closing the first half with a raucous reading of Don't Want to Know that highlights the song's abrasive edges. But later he returns for a playfully insouciant version of Sweet Little Mystery alongside Rose that banishes any memories of the Wet Wet Wet cover.
After a mob-handed, enjoyably chaotic rendition of May You Never with the house lights up, the gig closes with vintage footage of Martyn himself from 1986 performing a sweetly ravaged cover of Somewhere Over the Rainbow. After such a crammed evening of interpretation, it's a potent reminder of the intimidating rawness of his talent, and leaves both the crowd and performers rapt.
Celtic Connections continues at various venues across Glasgow until 3 February.
This review was printed in The Guardian of Monday 28 January 2019. It ran with three pictures by Gaelle Beri.